Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is a story about a family of alligator wrestlers. Yeah - alligator wrestlers. It doesn't sound like the kind of fiction I would pick up, and it's not. I read this book because it was one of the top three finalists for fiction on the Pulitzer Prize list this year; none of them won.
(***small plot spoilers***)
Narrated by Ava, the youngest of the Bigtree clan, the book is set among the Florida everglades in the middle of a swamp. The family is part of a tourist attraction show in which the mother, Hilola Bigtree, is the main event. When she dies of cancer, none of the children understand how to cope with her loss to include the biggest child of all, the Chief; her husband, and father of the three children left in the literal and metaphorical wake of her death. When grandpa Sawtooth finally loses his mind and goes to old folks home, Kiwi Bigtree, the eldest of the children embarks on a journey to mainland of Loomis County to try and save the family business, not only from a long list of debt collectors, but from their father who has lost all site of reality in the death of his wife. Chief Bigtree soon follows, not to find his son, but to "take care of some mainland business and revive the show" leaving two young girls alone. As you can probably assume, there is no magical moving ending for this story.
The love story of Chief and Hilola is touching, but at times I found it frustrating. While this novel centers on the depth of emotion and wonderful characters the story made me mostly angry while I was reading. More than once I found myself skipping entire paragraphs to read only the topic sentence to get a feel for what was going on. The children are home schooled (at best) and far below peers their own age, their father leaves them for weeks at a time to go to the mainland with little regard for their safety or well-being. Add to this the middle-sister that falls in love with ghosts and believes she is going to marry into the paranormal world, a red alligator (they call all the alligators "Seths") that is to be seen by no one but our very young, very naive narrator, and a crazy man that can talk to birds and manipulate children you have a novel that for me, did not satisfy.
Because I understand the work that goes into writing, I must always find the silver lining. The book was beautifully written with moving prose and comic relief:
"The Beginning of the End can feel a lot like the middle when you are living in it."
"I didn’t realize that one tragedy can beget another, and another—bright-eyed disasters flooding out of a death hole like bats out of a cave."
"This was a little like having snipers tutor you on the limits of the prison yard."
And my personal favorite: "Oh my God, you are not even an original asshole! You are a plagiarist of assholes."
I truly hate writing reviews like this. It pains me when I don't love a book, especially one that was deemed so worthy by esteemed book-readers. I want to be on the Pulitzer list one day, and here I sit not liking a book they chose. I feel like it's the Film Academy Awards and everything wining is an Indie or foreign film, something NONE of us have seen, but have to sit through the acceptance speech in broken English.
I wonder if it has something to do with being a teacher and watching parents destroy their children's lives on a regular basis out of pure selfishness or an unwillingness to reach out for help when it is needed. I believe that may have played into my utter despise for the parents in this book - I blame them for what happened to their children, the struggles they endured.
Anyway - Swamplandia! goes down as a book I'm glad I read, but cannot really recommend. Maybe I'm a sucker for happy endings after all.
Karen Russell is one of the youngest authors to publish a best selling novel (29 years old). Swamplandia! has been picked up by HBO for a television series (maybe I'll watch, maybe the visual will help me like the story more) and she is also the author of a short story collection called St. Lucy's Home for Girls Rasied by Wolves. I might read this. Like I said, the writing was excellent, I just didn't buy the story.
I look forward to what she might write next. While the book didn't set well with me, her writing is flawless and as an aspiring writer, we must read those well-written whether we love the story or not.